May 27, 2008
Science observer Kevin Kelly has been thinking along the same lines, inspired by recently seeing some extraordinarily graceful robotic jellyfish.
The jellyfish come in two varieties, one that moves through water and a balloon-based one that gently pulses through the air. They're the creation of a German automation company called Festo, put together to demonstrate their technical prowess. But Kelly says they accomplish more than that...
I think we are primed to find lifelikeness in machines. E.O. Wilson calls it our biophilia -- our intense attraction to living things. As we design machines to approach the complexity of organisms and mimic their behavior (as these do), we will be very quick to include them in our love.
Isn't it strange we rush to love these bots, but not to the same degree, say, automobile fuel pumps? The pumps are no less complex or capable. These mechanical jellies tell me that when we make artificial intelligences even 1/2 as smart as a dog, we will love it to pieces.
(*)Disclosure: I work for Disney, which owns Pixar, which made WALL-E.
May 25, 2008
New money for the UK
Great Britain is furthering the tradition of innovation with the new design of their coins. Each coin shows a section of the Royal Arms, placed together you get the impression of the coins being cut out of a larger symbol. This page shows the full effect.
The design is a result of a nationwide competition, with more than 4,000 entries. The winning design is the work of Matthew Dent, a 26 year old graphic designer who now has a hell of a item to add to his professional resume.
May 24, 2008
Designing a new symbol
As new concepts enter the world, our language must change to keep pace. But language is more than just words, we also depend upon a rich, varied and subtle visual language...signs and symbols that speak to us throughout our day.
So where do new visual "words" come from? They must be invented of course, a task that usually falls to graphic designers. Here's an example... the English designers Jack Schulze and Matt Webb recently gave their design students the task of designing a symbol to represent the concept of commerce via RFID technology...using those little wand-like devices to make everyday purchases(*).
It's a subtle and complex topic to try to boil down into a simple gylph. One of the students' attempts is pictured above. Check out some other examples here.
You got a better design? Let's see it!
(*) And yes, I know that the use of RFID has been fraught with technical and personal freedom issues for years. I'm not saying it's a good idea, just that it's becoming a more widely used idea.
May 21, 2008
The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments
This is a great time to be a kid interested in robots or programming or multimedia, what with Lego Mindstorms and computers and video cameras. But it's the worst of times if you're a kid interested in chemistry.
Over the past generation or so, kids chemistry sets have been emasculated and dumbed to the point of near worthlessness. There are a number of reasons for this... among them manufacturer's fear of lawsuits(*), post-9/11 paranoia about chemicals being used by terrorists, and war-on-drugs paranoia about the ingredients and equipment in chemistry sets being used by meth labs(**).
As a result, there are probably fewer kids in America getting turned on by chemistry, which means there may be fewer kids choosing chemistry as an advocation.
And this couldn't happen at a worst time. We're on the verge of a world-changing revolution in the material sciences, and we could use all of the crack chemists we can get to fuel it.
Robert Thompson to the rescue! Thompson's the author of the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, a new book that tells you how to set up your own chemistry lab, and then use it to perform dozens of fun and educational experiments.
The book lays out just what apparatus and chemicals you'll need, and where you can get them. (It turns out many of the chemicals that have been banned from chemistry sets are still readily available at your local hardware store). I was particularly impressed with the Guide's instructions on how to keep a lab notebook (I could have used that info when I was starting out in science).
Armed with this book, I'm looking forward to many hours with the kids, unlocking the wonders of the chemical world.
(*)So, is doing home chemistry dangerous? Sure, potentially, in the same way that cooking (another activity that every kid master) can be dangerous. Thompson's book does an excellent job teaching lab safety.
(**) Evidently, the state of Texas has made it illegal to buy an Erlenmeyer flask without a permit.
May 20, 2008
Fluid Earth Bowl
Here's a cool mix of custom manufacture, geography, and modern design. The European company Fluid Forms lets you specify any location on Google Maps, and then they custom mill a laminated wood bowl matching the topography of your choice. A bit pricy at 230 Euros. But very cool.
May 13, 2008
I'm speaking at Where 2.0
Just a heads up that I'm attending (and speaking at) the Where 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. If you're attending, say "Hi!"
May 11, 2008
Emergency Party Button
Brian Gaut lives in an average nondescript apartment. The only thing out of the ordinary is the object sitting in the middle of the coffee table -- a metal box adorned with a huge red button... the Emergency Party Button (EPB for short). Slam that button in a moment of extremity and the whole room changes personality. The lights go down, the curtains close, black lights, fog machines and lasers fire up, the stereo starts cranking out "What Is Love" by Haddaway and -- just like that -- your nondescript apartment is transformed into a totally happenin' disco.
The world would be a better place if every room had an emergency party button. You can check out a video of the room in action on Gaut's website. There's also complete instructions in case you want to roll your own EPB.
May 09, 2008
For the last few months The Sundance Channel has been showing a odd and wonderful series of short films called "Green Porno". The shorts star actress Isabella Rossellini portraying a wide variety of invertebrates in the act of reproduction. The films have this great low-budget feel to them, with no special effects other than Rossellini's school play looking costumes. And the mating habits of these creatures are truly bizarre and eye-opening. So if you're interested in invertibrate behavior, or watching Isabella Rossellini mate, or both, Green Porno is worth checking out.
May 04, 2008
Maker Faire 2008
Maker Faire was this weekend, and it was a truly amazing experience. Hundreds of exhibitors, thousands and thousands of people. My head is still reeling from the whole thing, but a few items stand out in my memory:
Adam Savage from Mythbusters gave a great talk, simultaneously hilarious and inspiring. Savage ran through his pre-Mythbusters career (which included art, sculpture, theater design, and extensive film special effects work). And he talked at length about the combination of enthusiasm and obsession that drives him to make insanely accurate recreations of movie props.
Speaking of obsession, the folks from ARTOO-DETOO.NET were there in force, with their custom-built R2 droids chirping and scooting around the halls.
I was also blown away by Tim Robinson's recreation of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine. The product of hundreds of hours of building and adjusting. I've always been fascinated by the idea of capturing mathematics in mechanisms, and the Difference Engine was the epitome of that. Here's a video of it in action.
But that's just a few of dozens and dozens of things that were amazing and wonderful. Ya gotta go!
May 01, 2008
The end of phone tree hell?
We've all spent endless hours in phone tree hell... Press "1" for customer service, press "2" for tech support... If only there was a better way.
A company called Fonolo thinks they've come up with it. Their automatic systems have dialed hundreds of phone menus, meticulously working through every option, recording it all along the way. As a result, Fonolo has become a kind of Google for automated phone menus, letting you search for the specific number to call and the exact sequence of buttons to push to get to the information you need.
Better yet, the Fonolo system will make the call for you, and connect you in after it's slogged through the phone tree on your behalf.
Right now Fonolo is in limited beta. You can sign up to receive notice when they're ready for more users (sometime this fall). In the meantime you can check out this video of Fonolo CEO Shai Berger explaining his product.